Days of anticipation gave way to tense moments and then a heart-breaking announcement. Seconds before it was supposed to touch down on the Moon’s surface early on Saturday, communication with the Chandrayaan 2 lander was lost, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said. India had hoped to create history by becoming the first nation to reach closest to the lunar south pole but as the landing time of 1:55 am came and went, there were no signs that the mission had succeeded.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was watching the landing from the mission control room, was briefed by ISRO scientists. “There are ups and downs in life. This is not a small achievement. The nation is proud of you. You all have done a big service to nation, science and mankind. I am with you all the way, move forward bravely,” PM Modi told them. Later, speaking at the control centre this morning, he said, “We came very close but we will need to cover more ground. The best is yet to come… India is with you.”
Earlier, the Moon lander Vikram separated from its orbiting mothership and performed a series of manoeuvres to lower its altitude for a perfect touchdown between 1:30 am and 2:30 am. It used rocket thrusters to slow itself down to attempt the extremely tricky operation that ISRO called “15 minutes of terror”. It was at this point, about 2.1 km from the surface, that contact was lost.
“The Vikram lander descent was as planned and normal performance was observed until an altitude of 2.1 kilometres. Subsequently the communication from the lander to the ground station was lost. The data is being analysed,” ISRO chief K Sivan said. Dr Sivan had called Chandrayaan 2 the “most complex mission ever undertaken by ISRO”.
Had things gone as per plan, the rover Pragyan – which means wisdom in the Sanskrit language – was to roll out from the Moon lander between 5:30 am and 6:30 am. Over its lifespan of 14 days, Pragyan was expected to explore craters for clues on the origin and evolution of the Moon, and also for evidence on how much water the polar region contains.
The region of the Moon where the lander, named after Vikram A Sarabhai, the father of India’s space programme, was aiming for is largely unexplored – most lunar landings have taken place in the northern hemisphere or in the equatorial region.
An older mission by China landed in the northernmost part, followed by Russia’s Luna missions. Most of the American lunar landings, including Apollo missions, were in the Moon’s equatorial region. China currently has a rover on the dark side of the Moon.
A successful landing would have made India the fourth country after the US, Russia and China to accomplish a soft landing on the Moon. The Chandrayaan 2’s orbiter remains in operation and will continue to study the Moon from afar for about a year.
The spacecraft lifted off from its launch pad at Andhra Pradesh’s Sriharikota on July 23 on board the giant heavy-lift rocket GSLV Mark 3. India’s space scientists pulled off the launch in a narrow one-minute window in their second attempt, a week after the mission was aborted 56 minutes before lift-off. The mission stood out because of its low cost of about $140 million. The United States spent the equivalent of more than $100 billion on its Apollo missions.